200 miles of gravel racing through the Flint Hills of Kansas is no joke, so we needed equipment that was up to the challenge.
Saturday May 31st is not only the penultimate day of the Giro d’Italia, it’s also the very day 1,250 Cyclists (myself included) will be racing 200 miles on the gravel roads of Emporia, Kansas for the Dirty Kanza 200, one of the most famous of the burgeoning field of gravel events. What was just an obscure underground event popular with the locals when it began in 2006 is now boasting competitors from 44 states and seven foreign countries for the 2014 edition. With elements of racing, adventure, and pure survival, DK200’s brutality is its biggest draw. For me, the draw was simply the unknown. Could I make it through a 200-mile gravel race? I wanted to find out. (For the entire Dirty Kanza project preview, read the June and July 2014 issues of Road Bike Action).
Welcome to Kansas – gravel and grass as far as the eye can see.
This year’s course will be a repeat of the 2013 route that had a total of 12,500 feet of elevation gain coming from the incessant short climbs of the Flint Hills. “We don’t have mountains, we go down into the valleys and up the other side. We find the roads that don’t go straight, but go down into the creek and river valley. It’s a constant up and down roller coaster; you don’t get knocked out from the roundhouse, its the constant jabs that do you in”, said DK200 promoter Jim Cummins. The climbing isn’t the only challenge the Flint Hills pose, it’s what’s in them than can be cause for heartache. The qualities that made flint rock a perfect material for making arrowheads and tools by the Native Americans, are the very same qualities that can wreak havoc on tires.
Four-time winner Dan Hughes cautioned, “durability is a must when riding in the Flint Hills, and shouldn’t be a place you look to save weight”. Since there isn’t any follow car support like in road racing, and the checkpoints are 50 miles apart, you need to be able to fix any mechanical problems that might arise, making equipment choices all the more important.
We started with a stock Specialzed Crux Evo then made a few modifications, including swapping the 40mm deep Roval CLX 40 wheels for Enve’s new M50 29er wheels that are tubeless-ready and have a wider rim width that is ideal for the Specialized Trigger 28c tubeless tires.
Finding a bike that’s up to the challenge, and that would fit my needs, was the first thing that needed to be done. About the time the project popped into our heads at RBA, we caught wind of a soon-to-come Crux Evo “gravel bike” from Specialized that Dirty Kanza winner Dan Hughes helped develop. Although the Crux Evo maintains the same geometry as the standard Crux cyclocross bike, what it provides is the addition of a third water bottle cage on the underside of the down tube, and the SWAT Box, a storage box mounted below the water bottle cage that holds a tube, Co2 cartridge, and a multi tool. With checkpoints spaced 50 miles apart at Dirty Kanza, the third water bottle mount was an important feature, as are practical storage solutions. I figured if it was Dan Hughes approved, it was good enough for me.
The Crux Evo was inspired by 4-time Dirty Kanza 200 winner Dan Hughes, who wanted a third water bottle cage and the SWAT Box storage system that’s found on some of Specialized’s mountain bikes.
Since course markings for the route are minimal, having a navigation device is important. We rigged up a Garmin 810 with an external battery pack that will mount atop the stem to ensure battery life isn’t going to be an issue. Zevlin Big40 tape is wrapped over gel pads on the handlebar to give some added comfort.
Picking the parts build for the Crux Evo proved to be a mix of new technology, and some long-proven parts, like Shimano’s Di2 drivetrain. The Di2 build included Shimano’s new R785 hydraulic disc brakes with 140mm IceTech rotors, which were mounted to DT240 hubs that had the stock bearings replaced with CeramicSpeed bearings (so too were the bottom bracket bearings and derailleur pulleys). The hubs were laced to the latest tech from ENVE Composites, their M50 29er clincher rim. Since 29-inch and 700c rims are the same diameter, the M50s worked with the 28c Specialized Trigger tubeless tires I had decided upon. After adding a few ounces of Orange Seal sealant, I had a wheel and tire combination that was light, fast, and proved durable in training. Final pieces to the build include a Stages Power meter on the left Dura-Ace crank arm and Zevlin Big40 customized handlebar tape with gel pads underneath.
After a flexibility assessment, Sean Madsen dialed in an ideal position that was both efficient and practical for an at least 12-hour event.
Specialized’s involvement in the project was much more than just as an equipment provider, we were after their expertise as well. Body Geometry Fit manager Sean Madsen is typically found fitting riders like Vincenzo Nibali, Rigoberto Uran, and Tom Boonen rather than cycling journalists. Nevertheless he gave me the pro-treatment and dialed me in on the Crux Evo after an full-body assessment on flexibility, past injuries, and riding characteristics. Madsen found that I had a significant leg length imbalance that was causing me to reach too much with my right leg. A 3mm shim under my cleat cured the problem.
After the BG Fit, I headed into Specialized’s wind tunnel that’s literally one block down the street from their main building. Since the Crux Evo would be the first gravel bike in the tunnel, aerodynamicists Chris Yu and Mark Cote were eager to see what gains could be made for such a long event, even if the average speed will only be in the 18-mph range. After four hours of testing a number of wheel/tire options, water bottle placement, and number plate attachment, the two things that resulted in the biggest gains came by way of clothing and helmet choices.
Pedaling test with rider. Bike setup identical in both tests.
-Standard Kit vs. Skinsuit:
Time saved over 200-mile Dirty Kanza course: 18 mph average speed: Between 7 and 8 minutes depending on severity of crosswind. 12 mph average speed: Between 9 and 10 minutes depending on severity of crosswind.
“Obviously in this case, the skinsuit provides an enormous benefit over a standard kit. In several of our own tests, we have seen a similar aero drag saving when changing from a looser club fit kit to a slightly more form fitting kit.
We found potentially huge time savings with changes in clothing and helmet choice.
Pedaling test with Neil. Bike setup identical in both tests.
-Giro Aeon vs. S-Works Evade:
Time saved over 200-mile Dirty Kanza course: 18 mph average speed: Between 2 and 3 minutes depending on severity of crosswind. 12 mph average speed: Between 3 and 4 minutes depending on severity of crosswind.
“Unless excessively high temperatures are an issue, there is a relatively significant advantage to riding the Evade. We have done this comparison on over 40 athletes and the typical savings is roughly 50% more than what we found on Neil, so the impact could potentially be much larger depending on the rider.”
With the potential for massive time savings to be had by going with a skinsuit over a standard bib/short, we brought in Endo Customs to design a skinsuit that had rear pockets and would be both aerodynamic and comfortable enough fit for all-day in the saddle. The Los Angeles-based company designed, sublimated, and sewed the custom skinsuit all in-house, something they do for their entire clothing line. As far as the helmet goes, I will start with the Evade, but have a more ventilated helmet waiting for me at the 100-mile checkpoint in case the temperature goes above the high 80 degree range.
Training for such a long, demanding event was uncharted territory for me, so I had to get some advice along the way. Since a number of the coaches at Carmichael Training Systems have competed in Dirty Kanza themselves, and it’s one of their Bucket List events, I figured they’d be a good source for helping determine how much training volume I should target in order to be ready, while still managing work and family time. So, beginning in March (three months before Dirty Kanza), I started implementing blocks into my training on a weekly basis, striving for bigger rides Friday through Sunday, then recovery and shorter rides mid-week. After the first month of an increased training volume about 20-percent higher than what I would typically ride, the effects on fitness were noticeable. I maintained this level of volume for all three months.
I’ve been told that the first hundred miles of Dirty Kanza have a road race feel with high-intensity riding, so in preparation for that I made sure not all my time was spent riding at sub-threshold levels. Even though the goal is to remain aerobic as much as possible in the race, since retaining muscle glycogen will be key, I added in threshold intervals once-to-twice a week, and even some short, 30-second maximum efforts. Overall though, the vast majority of the time was spent at endurance levels, doing as many three-to-six hour rides as time allows (8-10 per month) in order to get my body used to the long hours in the saddle.
Dirty Kanza’s 200-mile route has over 12,000 feet of elevation gain coming from the Flint Hills’ non-stop rolling terrain.
Two weeks out from Dirty Kanza the real training was all done, and now it’s about freshening up by decreasing volume by around 25-percent while maintaining a similar amount of intensity in the workouts. This should leave me fully recovered and with a bump in fitness. Additionally, the decreased volume will help muscle glycogen stores to be topped-off come race day. As far as my diet leading into the final days goes, I won’t be doing any carbo-loading regiment or anything like that; but I will be cutting out gluten for the 72 hours leading into the race in order to minimize any inflammation in my digestive track that gluten can cause. Since gastrointestinal issues are common during an endurance event like DK200, any reduction in inflammation should help.
SNICKERS OR BUTTERFINGER BARS?
First Endurance helped with product and nutritional expertise.
I had plenty of questions regarding what I should be drinking and eating for such a long day, and First Endurance’s Robert Kunz, VP of Science and Technology, was my go-to guy. Kunz broke it down quickly for me, “Our fueling philosophy is to remove everything that slows absorption, like fats and protein. Anytime you introduce anything slow to absorb, your body is forced to use muscle glycogen as fuel, and since that glycogen is in limited supply, you need to hold onto it as long as possible. The guys that nail the nutrition ride away from the rest in the last two hours”. Alright, no fats and no protein, so what should I eat, and how much?
Kunz recommended that I don’t touch anything other than First Endurance’s EFS Drink and EFS Liquid Shot while on the bike. “EFS Drink is designed as the primary fuel, and Liquid Shot secondary. EFS Drink delivers the most amount of calories at an optimum osmolality, with the electrolytes needed to sustain you in the heat for a long time”. As far as the caloric intake goes, Kunz says that should remain consistent each hour, with 300 calories being a good target. Although the solution concentration could decrease during the day if the temperature increases (no more than 8-percent solution when the weather is hot), the goal is to drink more in order to maintain consistent hourly caloric intake.
In training, one thing that took some getting used to was the fact that with the calories only coming from liquids, your stomach remains mostly empty, causing you to feel hungry. The immediate reaction is to eat something, but Kunz warned me of this ahead of time, and said it’s a normal feeling and one that is good in terms of absorption. If there’s nothing in your stomach to slow absorption, then the liquid calories will get into the bloodstream quicker where it’s needed, not stuck in your gut. It’s a bit of a mind game to get past the hunger feeling, but having done it in training I have the confidence that I am indeed being adequately fueled.
Sunflower Bike and Sport in Lawrence hosted a ride on Thursday that included both reigning Dirty Kanza champions Dan Hughes and Rebecca Rusch.
After so much time being given to thinking about and preparing for the Dirty Kanza 200 over the past few months, it’s finally just a day away. Although I have little doubt the Flint Hills are sure to expose any weakness or shortcomings in my planning, I’m hoping those shortcomings are minor. There’s a whole lot of gravel between me and my goal of finishing in the low 12-hour range, and whatever happens in those 200 miles is undoubtedly going to be memorable. You can follow the race live at www.dirtykanzalive.com